Sunday, February 17, 2013
Black Dog, By Elise Forier Edie
Editor's note; This story has magic and a captivating young heroine and is exactly the kind of story I have loved since childhood. Grab a cup of tea and some cookies and enjoy!
“A stray dog followed me home from my walk,” said Violet to the cook, while scraping the mud from her shoe soles by the scullery door. “He has black fur and brown eyes and I can’t get rid of him.”
“Well, don’t let him in the here,” Cook said sternly, from her perch by the stove. She was plump, frowned a lot and smelled of cloves. “And don’t touch him, mind. You have to be careful of a black dog when he follows you home.”
“Why?” Violet asked.
“It’s bad luck, child. Now, leave him alone.”
“But what will happen to him?”
Cook turned back to her recipes. “If he doesn’t go away by sundown, I’ll have the gardener drowned him.”
Violet sighed, “He hardly seems to deserve drowning.” She knelt, looking the subject in one of his mild, brown eyes. He had lots of curly dark fur, and Violet liked it. Her own hair was straight as strings and was a trial to keep nice. “He’s just a lost little scrap, really,” she said to Cook over her shoulder.
Cook hopped off her stool in a puff of flour and pulled Violet’s outstretched hand away from the little dog’s soft fur. “Just shut him outside and try to forget him. He doesn’t belong to us. If we leave him alone, he’ll go back to his master.”
Violet looked at Cook. “And if not, he drowns?”
Cook grimaced. “Black dogs know how to get home,” she said dourly.
Later, in the library, Violet peeked out the window to see if the dog was still by the kitchen door. He was not. He had taken up vigil in the shade of a rosemary bush. She watched him carefully for most of the afternoon, hoping that he would go away. But he only lay in a small, watchful wheel, his fluff of a tail hiding his nose, his shiny eyes alert. Sometimes there would be footsteps or distant noises, the clatter of a cart, or the calls of deliverymen and farmers. Then he would raise his head, nose twitching, ears perked. But he never seemed to hear or smell the right things, because he always put his head back down, (Violet imagined him sighing while he did so), and resumed his watchful vigil. Violet decided he was waiting for someone very specific.
As evening approached, and shadows lengthened in the kitchen garden, the little dog still remained in his lonely post by the rosemary. Violet thought of the gardener and of Cook and came to a decision.
Quickly, before she could change her mind, she tiptoed down the stairs, shoes in hand, her heart hammering like the cymbals on a wind up monkey. She peeked around the kitchen door, breathlessly waited until Cook’s back was turned, and flew into the larder, where she snatched a crust of bread and a handful of butter. These she hastily crammed into her pocket (they made the inside of her pocket very messy). Then she sprinted back down the hall, slipping out the side door (after lacing up her shoes with somewhat buttery hands). Once outside, she caught her breath and let the monkey in her heart wind down before she glided through the rose bushes and then through the stone archway to the kitchen garden. She hoped she looked like any innocent child on an evening’s perambulation.
The walls of her house looked purple in the twilight and the sky was a heavenly shade of lavender, sprinkled with stars. The little black dog raised his head as she approached and wagged his fluff of a tail, sweeping his patch of dirt smooth as he did so.
“If you don’t come with me, you will be killed,” Violet said to him, as softly as she could, kneeling to pat his head (gingerly, remembering how Cook had told her not to). “But I will take you somewhere safe for the night, if you follow me.”
She stood, and the little dog stood too, flapping his black ears. Then he looked at Violet, as if to say, “Lead on,” and so Violet did, out of the kitchen garden, through the rosebushes and then down the path to the boathouse.
“I know this might seem strange to you,” she said, as they walked. “But Cook never comes to the boathouse, you see, and she’s the only one who knows about you. Mother hasn’t liked the boats since Father went away, and my brother Edward is at school, and won’t come rowing for a month, yet. So you’ll be quite safe until your Master comes. That is who you are waiting for, isn’t it?”
The dog did not reply, but wagged his tail convivially. Violet took that as an affirmative answer, and so it was with a light heart that she led him down the path to the lake.
The boathouse was old and made of planks and stones. Violet liked it, the way ceiling reflected ripples from the lake in a wild dance of light and shadow, and how a throng of frogs sang nearby in a tuneful chorus. She fed the dog the bread and butter, apologizing for its squashiness. Then she made a nest for him on the dry planks by the docks, with a length of canvas and a rag. “You lie here,” she told him, “And be very quiet all night, and then you will be safe.”
The dog lay down obediently and thumped his tail. Violet believed he was agreeing to her terms. She said, “I think you are a very good dog. I’m sorry you are all alone, and I can’t keep you. I have to go now,” she added, and then ran up the path as quick as she could, to wash for supper.
Colonel Butler was coming for supper again that night, and their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Pellenheart. They were bringing a famous author named Grundiman (or something like that; Violet hadn’t been listening very closely to the guest list and didn’t really care), who was summering in the country, and wished to meet the famous Egyptologist’s wife (that was Violet’s mother). Violet had to dine early in the kitchen with Cook and then go to her room and prepare to be presented to the guests later on. It was a duty she always loathed, but loathed even more now that her brother Edward was away at school and her father had gone to Africa. Edward was learning Euclid and her father was exploring tombs, and neither would be home for some time. It seemed to Violet that all the merriment in the house had fled with the carriages that had taken them away. Dinners, even in their jolly summer house, formerly an oasis of fine picnics, clicking croquet mallets and tinkling laughter had become terribly quiet affairs. The guests gave her sharp looks over glinting cutlery, wine decanters rang on the rims of glasses, cards whispered on tables, but nobody spoke much. And Colonel Butler, with his pale green stare and elegant hands, presided over everything in her father’s place, while her mother, who had once had a sweet laugh and told wonderful stories, merely vibrated, like a bell that’s been struck, but can’t be heard anymore.
“I see the dog went away like I said,” Cook remarked, as Violet sat at the plank table in the kitchen, having guiltily washed her buttered-and-dog-petting hands in the basin provided.
“Did you see him leave?” she asked carefully.
Cook shook her chins and passed Violet a plate of meat and gravy with bread. “But he’s gone all right,” she said. “Which saves me a load of worry.” She looked at Violet, a little shyly. “A black dog following you home can be the worst sort of luck where I come from. It’s a superstition, and maybe nonsense I suppose, but why take chances?”
“How can a black dog be bad luck?” asked Violet.
Cook glanced about before she said, “Why he could be the Gurt Dog, child. Bringing Things on the house.”
“What sorts of Things?”
“Things no child should know about,” Cook said darkly. “Gurt dogs are of the Devil and bring thunder and funerals on houses of sin. That’s all you need to know. Now, eat.”
Violet nodded and ate her food obediently. She knew perfectly well the little black dog in the boathouse was no more an agent of the Devil than Cook was really a carpenter. But she knew better than to argue with Cook about it, who had been known to take her pudding away when she was too fresh.
Later, Violet went upstairs and endured being dressed for presentation. This was arduous, because it involved putting on stiff and uncomfortable clothes with lots of very aggressive lace, and also having her hair curled. Mercilessly hot tongs were applied to her locks, and the maid’s fingers slipped and often burned her forehead and the silly curls never held anyway. When it was all done, the maid had said she looked “a picture” and that is how Violet felt, like everything about her had been painted.
Downstairs at the presentation, everything was very strange and quiet. Violet held her head still, so that the curls in her hair would keep their shape. Her mother, flushed even in the candlelight, seemed to be very far away in a dream when she said, “This is Violet, my daughter.”
After she spoke, her eyes slid to Colonel Butler. He seemed to be transmitting some message back with his bright green eyes, one that made his face quite red and (Violet thought) unpleasant-looking. Violet's mother’s lips parted in response. The whole silent conversation made Violet feel very strange indeed, like she should stamp her feet and scream. Instead she said, “Hello,” very dutifully. Her voice sounded loud in the charged silence.
No one looked at her. The guests were all transfixed by whatever was going on between Mother and Colonel Butler. Mrs. Pellenheart seemed horrified, Mr. Pellenheart looked like he wanted to hit something and the writer, Grundiman-or-Whoever, looked vastly amused, as if some wonderful pageant was being presented right there on the dining room table.
It was on the tip of Violet’s tongue to ask what was going on when a dog barked suddenly outside, a very large dog, by the sound of it. Everyone jumped at once and Violet saw her mother’s face drain of color. Then Grundiman-or-Whoever laughed, and that startled the rest of them out of the silence. The mysterious moment was gone.
“There are always dogs barking at night in the country,” sang out Mrs. Pellenheart, and everyone laughed even more, (although Violet didn’t know why, since it wasn’t a very funny or clever thing to say).
Then things returned mostly to normal and they all looked very brightly in Violet's direction. Mrs. Pellenheart dimpled and called her over so she could exclaim over how much Violet had grown, and Grundiman-or-Whoever pinched her cheek and told her she was “a lovely thing, really lovely.” Her mother reclined, warm and dreamy, into her chair and Colonel Butler signaled curtly to have her wine glass refilled. Only Mr. Pellenheart stayed as he was before, grim-faced and bristling, first banging his fork on the table and then folding his arms over his chest.
Later that night, dressed in her nightgown, with her horrid hair free to wilt as it wanted, Violet opened her window and tried to glimpse the boathouse. She hoped that it wasn’t the little dog that had barked and startled the company, and hoped Cook hadn’t heard it too (although really that bark at dinner had been so very large, and the black dog in the boathouse so very small, Violet couldn’t credit it). The lake had a great silvery stripe of moonlight down the middle, and Violet stared at it while a sweet scented breeze blew the last of the curl from her hair.
And then she must have fallen into a dream because suddenly the little dog was before her, only grown to great proportions, so it seemed the size of a horse, or larger, with red shining eyes like wheels of flame in its face.
“Why it really is the Devil’s dog,” thought Violet, as a chill raced down her back, and she meant to run from her window and jump directly into bed, but the dog stopped her cold by speaking.
The Dog said. “I shall not harm thee, and never shall, Violet. For thou wast kind to me, when none other would be, and thou art pure of heart.”
“But aren’t you the Devil’s dog?” Violet said, amazed she could speak at all through her chattering teeth. It felt very much like her knees had turned as ripply as the moon in water and her stomach had hollowed into a bowl as big as the lake itself.
The Dog laughed, and Violet caught a heart-stopping glimpse of the sharpest, biggest teeth she had ever seen in the creature’s cavernous mouth. “Wast not the Devil made by God, child? And are not we all His instruments?” Violet nodded dumbly (she was far too terrified to do anything else, although she knew very little about God and the Devil except the usual clouds and harps and pitchforks and things). “Well then,” continued the Dog. “List, for my Master comes this night and I must soon take leave of thee. For thy kindness, I give thee three wishes, one to be foolish, one to be wise, and one for luck. Use them well, child, for you shall not see me again for many years.”
Suddenly, there was a horrible clap of thunder, and a streak of lightening in the clear night sky. A rending, tearing sound seemed to split world in two pieces and at last Violet jumped up from the window seat, not sure if she was awake or asleep.
Then the night was swept by even more noises and shouts, as people from the sleeping house ran out onto the dark lawn, screaming and pointing, their night caps and wraps glowing red in a strange, flickering light. And Violet didn’t know which was more disturbing—that she had dreamed of the giant Dog, that Colonel Butler was standing on the lawn with her mother, dressed only in his shirt and breeches, or that the boathouse was on fire, and would probably be burned to a cinder by morning.
Violet later thought that she might have gone down the stairs and onto the lawn with everyone else that night, but the sight of her mother, clutching the arm of Colonel Butler, pale as a candle in her nightclothes, scared her so much that she didn’t move from her window until long after dawn. Instead, she watched the fire burn all alone. She hoped that the little dog was safe, and wondered at the dream she had had. Later (she must have been falling asleep again by then), she remembered the three wishes the Devil’s Dog had bestowed and thought what a silly notion had been. “Although,” some dreaming part of herself said, “If it was not a silly notion, and I do have a wish, I wish that my hair might be curly so I can forever escape those hideous tongs.” Then she thought nothing more, until the maid woke her up hours later with a scream.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of child’s hair turning curly overnight,” said Cook. She reached a clove-scented finger out and wonderingly touched one of Violet’s perfect ringlets.
“They scared Clara the maid,” Violet said of her curls. “But I love them. They don’t go away when I pull on them.” She was eating breakfast at the plank table and swinging her feet. Her new hair felt soft and springy when it brushed her cheeks.
“Nor does the steam in here take them out neither,” Cook said, leaning in to touch her hair again and again. (Violet found her curiosity almost intrusive, and felt a little like a crocus being overshadowed by a giant box hedge). “’Tis a miracle for certain. How did it happen?”
“The fire scared me so bad my hair turned curly,” Violet joked. After all, it was nearly true, and she knew Cook wouldn’t be pleased about the Black Dog and his wishes.
“Were you awake, then?” Cook asked, drawing away and busying herself at the stove. “For the fire?”
“Only for a little while,” Violet said carefully.
“Ah. Did you… did you see us out there, tending to …to it?” Violet nodded. “Your mother and, mmmmm, everyone?”
Violet paused over her eating. She knew that Cook wondered if she had seen Colonel Butler. And she knew also that she wasn’t supposed to have seen him. And she knew she was supposed to lie and say she hadn’t. Violet knew grownups liked it when children lied about certain things. To say she had not noticed Colonel Butler was like saying Grandmother’s horrible pink silk was “very nice,” or that it was “perfectly all right” that her father was going away to Egypt, or that “it was nice to meet” some boring old uncle with dreadfully smelly breath, who kept planting slimy kisses on her cheek. She didn’t know why grown ups liked these sorts of lies, when everyone knew lying was wrong. But she could tell that’s what Cook wanted.
“I didn’t see anyone special,” said Violet obediently to Cook. “I only saw the fire, really.”
Later that morning, Violet went down to the smoking ruins of the boathouse. She called for the little dog, but he was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t really expecting to see him. She was beginning to suspect that the little black dog and the Gurt Dog were one and the same. That somehow, through magic, the dog had been small, and then grown quite large; and the dog was supposed to punish sinners, but somehow Violet had changed that, by saving the little dog’s life.
And soon she found herself walking around the lake, thinking about her two remaining wishes. She did not wonder much at the wishes—there was, after all the proof of her glorious, sought after, perfect hair bouncing around her face. There was only the matter of what to wish. She only had two more. What should they be? In the fairy stories, people always wished for riches, but Violet knew her father didn’t need any more money. They had quite enough of everything, more than they needed, surely. Also in the stories, people wished for good health, but Violet didn’t know anyone who was sick, and so she couldn’t wish for that, not properly anyway. She puzzled over the problem of Colonel Butler, for though she didn’t fully understand it, she did know the fact of him on the lawn in his breeches last night presented some kind of dreadful malignancy. But she couldn’t put the how and why of it together quite, so she couldn’t figure how it could be fixed. She wanted to ask someone for advice, but she also knew she was supposed to lie about knowing anything. She thought and thought until she felt a headache coming on.
By then she had wandered to the other side of the lake, where the boathouse looked like a smudge of smoke on the shore and her own house, tall and imposing with its terraces and stone walls, sat on the hill beyond, seeming austere and mysterious and somehow very lonely. Violet left the path and sat on the lake shore with her back up against a tree, and stared at her home. She wondered how having two perfectly good wishes bestowed upon her could have turned into a headache and a burden, when it seemed like it should be such a delicious problem.
“Oh, leave off your wishes for heaven’s sake,” said an urgent voice nearby and Violet jumped, for it was her mother’s voice, and she sounded both frightened and angry. Bewildered, Violet looked about her. What did her mother mean she should “leave off,” and how did she know Violet was thinking about wishes?
She opened her mouth to reply when another voice startled Violet into silence. “I won’t leave off. They’re driving me mad. And I’ll not be put off any longer, Jane.” This was Colonel Butler of course, sounding just as afraid and angry as her mother.
Violet realized they were directly behind her, on the other side of the tree, near the path, speaking in the low, desperate voices of children holding back tears.
“It’s a fool’s request,” her mother was saying. “And I don’t know why you ask it. I love my children. I won’t leave them. And whether he cares or not, I love my husband. And once upon a time, I would have said the same of you.”
“Of course I – I love them,” Colonel Butler choked, and Violet knew from the way his voice stumbled that he was telling one of those strange, grownup lies. “I want nothing but the best for them all. But Jane—“
“And so you must go. Immediately. As far as you can get—“
“Not without you.”
“Yes, without me,” her mother cried. “You’ve already soiled my reputation. Will you have my whole life, too? Everything that is mine?” Violet heard her mother’s voice break, and her own hot tears started as her mother wept. “Oh, God. How I wish I had gone with him and taken the children when he asked me to! How I wish I had gone to Egypt with Bruce-to hell with the dangers, and the heat, and the savages-if I had gone with him, when he asked, then you would have never been able to tempt me. I might even have been happy, in Africa—who knows? I would welcome the reptiles and dead kings now. I would. The Devil take me for being so afraid. God, God, what have I let you do to me?”
“I have treasured you. I have loved you—Jane--“
“You have ruined me,” and with a little scream, as if she had stabbed something into herself, Violet heard her mother break from the path, and saw her stumble on the beach in front of her. She was clearly distraught; her dark hair had come undone, and her clothes were covered in earth and leaves as if she had been rolling around in the dirt. Violet couldn’t imagine what would make her elegant, beautiful mother roll in the dirt, and she had half a mind to scold Colonel Butler for pushing her to the ground.
But then her mother’s terrified gaze was on her and she was shaking her bedraggled hair from her wet, pale face and saying, “Violet? What are you doing here? And what on earth have you done to your hair?”
And then Colonel Butler was also in front of her, very red in the face indeed, and looking disheveled and murderous and petulant, like a large boy who has been thrashed and had his toys locked away. “Spying are you?” he roared. And he made as if to strike Violet, but her mother grabbed his arm so he couldn’t, and Violet hid her face in her arms.
There were some scuffling sounds and violent whispers and Colonel Butler said, “I’ll pry it out of her, dammit,” and more whispers. Through it all Violet hid her eyes. And then Violet’s mother knelt by her side and said softly, “Darling? What are you doing here?”
And Violet said, through her hands, “I am wishing your wish.” She peeked at her mother. “Will that do?” she asked.
But when she looked up to see what her mother thought of that, everything had changed of course.
Years later, Violet asked her brother Edward if he remembered ever going to school in England, and father being away at Egypt, and she and her mother living alone at the summer house by the lake.
“When?” said Edward, thoroughly puzzled. They were both very old by then—Violet was nearly fifteen--and she and Edward had both been living in Egypt with their mother and father for many years. They could do all sorts of marvelous things like speak Arabic, dig for mummies and pilot boats on the river. They were sitting on the veranda of their house in the desert, watching the sun set over the golden mounds of sand. The first of a nightly swath of stars were appearing in the rose streaked sky.
Violet said, “It seems like a dream I had, but it also seems so real. Father went to Egypt without us—“ Edward snorted at this silly idea, “And then mother and I lived by ourselves in the summer house by the lake, while you were at school. We had a dog, a little black dog—“
“A dog?” Edward interrupted. “Now I know this was a dream—we’ve never had a dog--”
“Yes, that’s the strangest part,” Violet agreed. “But I remember the dog best of all. He had curly dark hair and a little pink tongue and he followed me everywhere. I believe he bit that horrible Colonel Butler on the leg.”
Edward wrinkled his brow. “That terribly boring old friend of fathers’, who always moons at mother when he visits?” Violet nodded and Edward laughed. “Well, I remember no such time. I don’t believe it really happened, Violet. And thank heavens. It sounds like a stupid and dreadful life, really. We’ve had so many larks here in Africa.”
Violet sighed. “I know,” she said. “But it seems like it might have happened. It seems like that was my life and then somehow I made a wish and it all turned out differently.” She pursed her lips. “We had a cook at the summer house who smelled of cloves. I quite liked her. And my hair was straight.”
Edward laughed again. “Now I know you must have been dreaming,” he said, and patted her dark curls. “Your hair has always been the envy of every great lady and little girl we have ever met.” It was true. It was universally acknowledged that Violet’s dark curly hair was a glory. “And we’ve always lived in Egypt. Father took us with him the first time he went despite mother’s initial trepidations and it’s been a ripping time had by all since.”
“Yes,” Violet agreed, thinking of the adventures they had all enjoyed, from riding camels, to uncovering treasures, her mother and father always happily together, and Edward by her side.
Somewhere off in the darkening desert a big dog barked gruffly. The clear desert air must have amplified its voice, for it sounded very large and very nearby. “A dog? All the way out here?” Edward wondered.
“I do hope it’s all right,” said Violet.
“It sounds big enough to fend off jackals.”
They both waited to hear if it would bark again, but it did not. Instead, the sun set in a boiling golden sky and then a very chill wind blew in from the dunes.
Edward stood. “We should go in,” he said.
Violet leaned her head back and looked at the stars. “If you had one more wish, what would it be?” she asked him.
“One more wish? I didn’t realize I’d gotten to have any,” said Edward lightly.
Violet shook her head. Why had she said “One more wish?” She laughed. “One wish, then. What would it be?”
He put his hands in his trouser pockets and whistled up at the stars. “That’s easy,” he said. “I’d wish for luck. The very luck of the Devil. Lucky people stumble on hidden tombs and meet patrons in unexpected places and get appointments at fine universities. Lucky people meet their true love and get their symphonies lauded and are the first to discover a new element and name it. I would wish for luck for all my days and yours, Violet, dear.”
“I like that,” said Violet. “A wish for luck and only luck. The luck of the Devil.” She laughed and closed her eyes.
“Now let’s go into supper, shall we?” Edward said. “We have a big day tomorrow at the dig. Perhaps father will finally find the hidden tomb entrance.”
Violet stood and said, “I have a feeling he will, Edward. I have a feeling he will make the discovery of his life very soon and we will all be famous.”
Edward laughed at the fancy. Then she took his arm and they went into the house.
Elise Forier Edie is a professional playwright and author based in Washington State.
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